EN FR

I shall cry out to the sea

Prison - Marisol Rifai

Prostitution, robbery, drug trafficking, homicides, kidnapping. Terrifying things that we shouldn’t have to deal with, except through a good, classic novel or a Sunday night movie. But, for the people in Beirut’s women’s prison, the verdict has been handed down, forever spelled out in black and white on a piece of paper.

***

It’s noon, a Saturday in the middle of August. My ponytail, which I had taken the time to do nicely for the occasion, is plastered to my cheek and I feel the droplets of sweat rolling, one by one, down my arm. The irritated taxi driver and the sermons of the sheikh, who is screaming his lungs out through the FM waves, do nothing to soothe my apprehension. In a few minutes, I’ll be in prison. I’ll be so every Saturday for a year. Now, seated in the back of the taxi, I start to doubt my choice, as the words “prostitution,” “robbery,” and “murder” start invading my thoughts.

***

The cold and dry air inside contrasts in a violent way with the quasi-tropical heat of the street. Policemen. The routine search. An iron door, another one. Huge keys. Finally, a long hallway, lit by white fluorescents and filled with … a disturbing silence. My eyes suddenly catch sight of another pair of eyes, looking out from inside a small cell window. I can’t determine what they are saying. The gaze is powerful, but not hostile. Nor is it sympathetic. The eyes belong to a woman who must be around 50. I will learn later that her name is R, that she has four children who are more or less my age, and that she is in prison for accomplice to murder.

***

“A photograph is the reflection of light, and in order to get the best results, one has to play around a bit with the different camera features.” There are about 10 of them, seated in a half-circle around me. Ethiopians, Lebanese, Sri Lankans, Filipinas. I watch them watching me. The words I use seem out of place. Shutter speed. Aperture. ISO. Focus. Then, once again, those damn words that haunt me. Theft. Attempted escape. Assault. Falsification of work permit. I can’t begin to imagine what these women, most of them in my age, sometimes even younger, did to end up in prison.

***

As the weeks pass by, the women develop a stronger bond with the cameras; cameras which they are only given the chance to tame once a week, during the two hours of our visits to the prison. One of them, G, quickly stood out from the others. When with the camera, “her” camera, she walks for several minutes down the loathsome, mouldy corridor onto which the cells open. She stops from time to time when she finds her subject — a plastic coffee tumbler, a spider squashed in a corner, a fluorescent bra drying on a hanger — and, click!

***

The first time I saw H, it was her black and glossy hair that left an impression on me. The second time I saw her, I asked her if she was new. She laughed at my question, snapping, “I thought photographers recognised people by their eyes, not by their heads.” She was wearing a headscarf and I hadn’t recognised her.

Prison - Marisol Rifai

***

From one week to the next, the improvements of my students were striking. Apart from their photographic techniques, which depended on each student’s mood and efforts, it was their changed perception of space that fascinated me. The metal bars criss-crossing the prison courtyard make up a setting for the most fairytale-like of images. In the puddle of swampy, greenish water, the foot of a girl smoking in the corner is reflected.

***

G is 23. Her photos are one of the things that motivate us, every Saturday morning, to get up early after our Friday nights out and get ourselves to the awful barracks of Barbar el-Khazen, the women’s prison in Beirut. She radiates a disconcerting sensuality, at the same time maternal and femme fatale. Always, but never out of condescension or pity, she is ready to offer her affection to any girl or woman — black or white, veiled or Jehovah’s Witness — who, for an instant, breaks down. She is the first to strike someone’s hair, to hold someone’s hand or dry the tears; her, the “star” of the prison. And her photos are exactly the reflection of this absolute love for the human being and the imposing self-confidence which she wears. G brought to prison the art which it had lacked.

***

R is 55 and has four children, of whom two are married and live abroad. The youngest just passed his baccalaureate exams this year. R has never participated in the photography courses. She’s the oldest prisoner in Barbar el-Khazen. Ten years. Ten long years, over the course of which she’s never smiled or approached anyone, but embroidered hundreds of hand towels with motifs of every kind. “I want to get out from here exactly the same person I was when I got in here,” she said. “No prisoner may befriend me; nobody will take me into her confidence. I won’t offer my own, either. This prison will not soil me. I will stay pure. Clean. Dignified.” R is clinging to life through cleanliness, order, tidying up. She spends entire hours washing and scrubbing, polishing every corner of her cell. “This prison will not soil me.”

***

H is 34. Her mother arrived in Lebanon some 20 years ago to do housework for a rich Beiruti family. “My mother taught me her passion for housework, for the ironing of blouses which cost five times my salary, and for the scrubbing of toilets.” So H followed her to the Land of the Cedars, “to transmit the skill from mother to daughter.” When working in the prison, I had a hard time smiling at her jokes. That amused her. Everything else does, too. Above all, so do we — the daughters of the rich bourgeois families who teach photography classes to the “maids”, those whom our parents threw in prison for stealing a watch, a mascara, a cheesecake or who knows what else.

***

Physical contact. These gestures, which are part of our daily lives — a handshake at work, a kiss of greeting from a friend, the embrace of a lover — in prison take on a much more free and liberated meaning. The border between flirting and comfort is not established. Touching others becomes necessary, vital. The “visitor,” who discovers this place for the first time, can be disoriented by this loss of reference in relation to what is considered acceptable outside. But the visitor quickly forgets, because for these women, holding hands almost entails a gesture of resistance. Among my first students, one in particular struck me because, from the very beginning, she told me that she had no interest in photography. Nevertheless, she always arrived first, sat down next to me and took my hand. She didn’t let go until two hours later, when the class had ended.

***

R, the oldest of the detainees, who has never confided in anyone and wanted to remain “pure,” “clean” and “dignified,” confessed to me one morning while doing her laundry that, “The first thing I’m going to do when I get out of here is to make straight for the sea. All alone, so that I can cry out to it everything that I kept for myself during the past 10 years.”

***

One year has passed. Most of “our” girls have gotten out and we may never see them again. When we arrived on those Saturday mornings, walking down the long and icy corridor, they frenetically waited behind their cell doors for the guardswoman to unbolt the padlocks. They made us feel that we were their gasp of oxygen. Now that the project is coming to an end, I realise I will miss them more than they will miss me. And so much the better. That means that they’re really out, that their lives have begun again — with or without photos, no matter! “Shutter speed,” “focus” and “ISO” were, in the end, no more than words to hold on to. Tools for erasing the other, less lovely words which echoed in their heads. Some of them, however, will go on to be great photographers. One in particular. And that is our most beautiful victory.

THE END

Al Nouzha Project was born in 2012, from Zakira, a Lebanese NGO working with photography in underprivileged communities. The objective of Al Nouzha was to teach photography during one year to the women of the prison in Beirut. I participated in the project along with Ramzi Haidar, the founder of Zakira, and five young photographers. This piece, “I shall cry out to the sea”, does not presume to be a complete, scientific account of these 12 months, but rather a compilation of impressions and personal experiences.

Translated from French to English by Angela Häkkilä.

 

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4 thoughts on “I shall cry out to the sea

  1. tres touchant. article qui reflete une ame pure et limpide.
    je t’embrasse tres fort

  2. Merci Marisol d’avoir partagé avec nous cette expérience qui nous rappelle que notre petit monde privilégié est vraiment tout petit et que, à l’extérieur de ce petit monde, il y a des mots qui nous font peur, mais aussi une humanité débordante.

  3. C’est très touchant. L’humanité là-bas parait plus riche que notre quotidien. Bravo pour cet effort et pour l’avoir partagé.

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